Tuesday, May 25, 2010

An Unexpected Discovery

The Young Victoria (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2009)
*** (A Must-See)


Jean-Marc Vallée’s The Young Victoria (2009), with a screenplay by Julian Fellowes who has an ear for period dialogue, tells the story of Queen Alexandrina Victoria of the United Kingdom who was born in London in 1809. From her near isolation during the “Kensington System” under the pretense of a potential Regency by her mother the Duchess Mary Louise Victoria and her advisor Sir John Conroy, to her 1938 coronation, and finally to her marriage to Prince Albert. Queen Victoria's reign as the sovereign is the longest, specifically for a female, in the British monarch history. It recently played at the Bytowne Cinema on Victoria Day (May 24th), which is a federal Canadian statutory holiday, in honor of both the Queens birthday and her participation in the enactment of the Constitution Act that formed Canada in 1867.

The Montreal-born Vallée is proving to be a Canadian director of considerable talent, especially in his ability to fuse visual storytelling innovation in what could be drab material. He turns a Victorian period film into a virtuoso experience of suspense, high emotions, intrigue, and romance. Unlike less note-worthy efforts like, say, Jane Campion’s sterile Bright Star (2009). The setpieces, costumes, and period details are fine to boot. And through appropriate - instead of superfluous - tracking shots, close-ups, shifting focal planes, freeze frames, steadycam shots, and the dolly zoom effect. Vallée's cinema expands on the possibilities of studio-filmmaking.


Vallée's directorial debut at the age of thirty is Stéréotypes (1993) and his following five features are Les Fleurs Magiques (1995), Liste Noire (1995), Los Locos (1997), Les Mots Magiques (1998), and Loser Love (1999). As well he has done some television work. Though all of these efforts are less well known compared to Vallée's more famous and partly self-financed film C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005), co-written with François Boulay. The title of the film stands for a lot of things like how it is an acronym of the protagonist family children names (Christian, Raymond, Antoine, Zachary, Yvan), a reference to the Patsy Cline’s song (whose music Mr. Beaulieu has a strong affinity towards, alongside Charles Aznavour), and an ironic descriptor of the unusual Québécois Beaulieu family who represents French-Canada’s changing norms away from the traditional nuclear family and the waning influence of the papal authority.

It is interesting that Martin Scorsese is a producer of The Young Victoria. Scorsese who is most notably known as a director whose content and style has always been adventurous among the years has been gaining prestige as being equally as important as a patron, protector, and preserver of motion pictures. Both of his The Film Foundation, which was organized in 1990, and the World Cinema Foundation, whose special advisor Kent Jones tended the 2010 restorations at Cannes Classic, are important landmarks in film-culture. He is currently working on a documentary on Elia Kazan (whose On The Waterfront (1954) was a monumental film of his adolescence) and has one on the producer Val Lewton. He has created several rockumentaries and documentaries on musicians. And he has acted in other respected directors films [e.g., Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990)] and popular television series [e.g., Curb Your Enthusiasm (2005), Entourage (2008)]. Scorsese's role has shifted toward one of a patron of global film-culture. By spreading his affluence towards films that mark his influence, he is reaffirming the importance of his more creative and daring output. Like his films that anthropologically address his Italian-American New York City heritage, the gangster films, and bold social critiques [e.g., Mean Streets (1973), Taxis Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1982)]. Whether it is through sole recommendations, like his praise of Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rockets (1996), to distribution, like releasing Matteo Garrone’s Gommora (2008), and now co-producing Vallée’s The Young Victoria - a project in itself that is similar to Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993). It is for this patronage Mr. Scorsese late period will be remembered for, not for his multiplex fodder spooks or his quirky cameos in his commercials.

C.R.A.Z.Y. is a stylish film and it proves Vallée position as a cinematic maximalist. The compelling soundtrack that adds depth to each scenes (which the director took pay-cuts to afford) is akin to the soundtrack in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990). The dream- and wish-fulfillment sequences come out of something from the Coen Brothers. The supernatural, inter-connectivity and fantasy sequences is reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan. And the queer content and visual flamboyancy hawks back to Gus Van Sant. It is this exciting mélange of technique that feels like it just came out of the blue in Canadian cinema as the film invades ones perceptive and auditory senses. It also paved the way for the type of Québécois cinema that Vallée's Montreal heir Xavier Dolan - the French cinema admirer, specifically François Truffaut - would later create. Dolan's new film Les Amours Imaginaire (2010) recently won him the “Regards Jeunes”, for the second year in a row, at the Cannes Film Festival.

Where C.R.A.Z.Y. can be categorized as being ambiguous. For example, Zachary and a friend leave a Cutlass and the friend walks away while Zachary zips up his pants. Mr. Beaulieu who sees this is dismayed as he, and the viewer, do not know if Zachary just got a blowjob. Though in The Young Victoria this ambiguity is replaced by the rendering of personal experiences. For example, there are melancholy moments of loneliness felt by a child imprisoned in a palace, the triumph of the courageousness of standing up for oneself in front of intimidation, and being shared the joys and frustrations of a newly embraced relationship.


Vallée seems to be a better director of character-types then of true characters. The young Queen and the Prince play the roles with brief moments of unbridled emotion as otherwise they are used as chess-piece portraiture-facsimiles in Vallée’s larger scale co-ordinations, akin to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lindon (1975). But even so Emily Blunt and Rupert Friends play the leads exceptionally well with intelligence and determinism. And the film has Vallée’s trademark moments of spiritual connection between mother and kin, Freudian dream sequences, slow motion to heighten tragic incidents, and beautiful and kinetic rendering of hyper-subjective moments.

In C.R.A.Z.Y. Vallée excelled at a depiction of the French-Canadian Québécois culture such as the large families, a collectivistic community, the personalities, and the places. Through its twenty-year span, it provides insight on varying aspect of the life cycle (e.g., birth, childhood, adolescents, adulthood). While The Young Victoria excels in the portrayal of social realities, when it does so, like the monarchy growing concern with the working class through inquiry in the housing and living conditions of the industrial-age workers or in the intense proletariat manifestation. Though sometime Vallée fails and when he does he falls hard. These moments of facile sensationalism like in C.R.A.Z.Y. with the slow-motion knockout and the slingshot across desert or in The Young Victoria when in slow-motion Albert takes a bullet for the young Queen (which in itself is a historical inaccuracy). These moments prove not to have any real insight.

C.R.A.Z.Y is a lot more then just an airport paperback of the topical issue of the week. It excels beyond anything generic even though it uses easy character types as it uses them to paint a complex situation. It provides complex family dynamics that are defined through several ecological levels and complex sibling dynamics that evolve and radicalize over time. It also looks at the self-regulation people do due to neighborhood watch and it looks at cultural norms as facets that play a larger role in the ways people define themselves as the film is set in a working-class Montreal suburb between 1960 and 1980, during the Quiet Revolution.


Vallée seems to be a criminally underrated director. Even though C.R.A.Z.Y. made a shit-load of money (estimated over six-million-dollars) and won several Canadian film awards (ten Genies) there has not been enough critical writing on the director, his technique, or the aims he tries to achieve. Even in Québec 24 Images, the province’s better film-criticism magazine, has yet to review The Young Victoria or include Vallée in their decade review (a similar injustice that befell Robert Morin). If Film is anything, let’s return to the birth of the cinematographic medium and the silent era. The greatest cinematic art is not found in narrative, dialogue, or words - a quality that is more defining of books and essays - just look at The Young Victoria for it as it reveals Film is at its best when it truly defines itself from other medium with a focus on images, sounds and atmosphere.

David Davidson

2 comments:

mcarteratthemovies said...

Emily Blunt has entered the same realm for me as the likes of William H. Macy or Laura Linney: I'll see a movie simply because she's in it. She smacked down Anne Hathaway's vanilla assistant with her clipped Brit wit in "Devil Wears Prada."

Even if "Young Victoria" isn't my favorite period drama of, say, the last decade, Blunt's performance is fantastic.

Café said...

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